Mickelson and the U.S. Open are an improbable match, plus how Rose made the leap and Tiger's major issues
You wouldn’t expect Phil Mickelson and the U.S. Open to be a great match. The U.S. Open is about precise control and percentage golf shots, while Mickelson’s game is built on exciting and daring golf shots. His game doesn’t appear suited for the exacting demands of a traditional U.S. Open -- and this Open at Merion was as exacting as they come.
After his heartbreaking loss on Sunday, Mickelson now has six runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open. Something about this tournament brings out the best in Mickelson.
So why wasn’t he able to win on Sunday? He missed a few birdie putts early that really hurt. If Mickelson had started faster, it could have changed the whole dynamic of his round. He played pretty well tee to green, and maybe the fact he wants this championship so badly got to him a little. He really needed those early putts to give himself a cushion and help settle him down.
I thought his strategy of playing 3-wood and 4-wood instead of driver worked very well. The long holes at Merion didn’t hurt Mickelson, only the shortest one. Mickelson made bogey on the par-3 13th on Saturday and Sunday and that was costly.
With so many close finishes, Mickelson might actually want to win the U.S. Open too much. When it’s time to let the tournament come to him, he can’t seem to do it. You can see that with Tiger Woods in majors now as well. Sometimes it’s a case of wanting it so badly you can’t let the tournament come to you. Finally, you have to have the right breaks at the right time too. Sometimes it’s not more complicated than that.
The reason that Justin Rose was able to win is because he has really raised the level of his short game in recent years. Rose has always been an excellent ballstriker. In that way, he’s very similar to Adam Scott. Both players were known as great ballstrikers for a long time, but the reality was that their chipping and putting were not of the caliber of their full swings. A good swing doesn’t make a good golfer. Rose has conquered his demons with the putts. Sure, he hit some bad putt this week, but by and large his short game and putting were solid. Rose had 16 bogeys,15 birdies and zero double bogies this week. That’s as much a testament to his improved short game and putting as it is to his ball striking.
Merion also proved that Woods, the pre-tournament favorite, has got issues in the majors. Woods used to play every tournament like it was a major so when he got to the majors they were no big deal to him. And because other players made majors so important and put so much pressure on themselves to win, Woods had a big advantage. Now Woods is making the majors more important too. Obviously he feels the pressure to win major No. 15 and that tension shows up mostly in his putting. He’s won four times in 2013 and I think he could win three or four more times but unless something changes mentally, I don't think those wins will include a British Open or a PGA Championship.
People thought Merion was going to be a referendum on the modern golf ball or equipment. In other words, has technology made a indisputably great course like Merion irrelevant to the modern professional game? However, we already knew the answer to that question because Harbour Town, Colonial and Pebble Beach -- all shortish classic designs -- hold their own against the pros. Merion was really a referendum on course architecture, this Open proved well designed courses that test shot-making and strategy will always stand the test of time. Because of the early rains, Conditions were as easy as they could possible be and 1-over-par won the tournament.
Before this tournament began, a lot of people predicted low scores, but I don’t think those people had ever played the course and realized the design beauty and strength of the course, it's green complexes. Everyone is so obsessed with length, but good design can negate length. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of Merions out there to go to. Architect Hugh Wilson did something very special there. And I don’t know that the USGA will come back to Merion anytime soon. The logistics were difficult and golf today is a business. For example, Riviera would be a fantastic major test, but the logistics of hosting a major there would be impossible.
While the rough could have been a little shorter, I didn’t have any major objection to the rough at Merion, although it’s funny to see a “fairway bunker” that’s 10 yards in the rough. However, the par 3s were awful. All four days,three of them were exceptionally long and one was ridiculously short. Sure, 13 is just a short hole, but the USGA could have move up one of those long par 3s to 185 yards, put a tight pin right and challenged the players to make a birdie. Instead we got a ridiculous 266-yard par-3 third hole, but, hey, that’s the U.S. Open. This tournament is always about fairways and greens. Also, putting the holes as close to the edges as they did turned Merion into the land of the 25-foot birdie putt. That’s not exciting, but that kind of excitement is not what you get at the U.S. Open. The tournament is survival of the fittest and in that respect the setup more than held its own.